Crane-Spotting Birdwatcher Heaven on the Baltic Sea Coast

Every autumn, tens of thousands of cranes gather on Germany's Baltic Sea coast before they head south for the winter. And each year, almost as many birdwatchers gather to observe the proceedings.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the Baltic Sea coast in northern Germany empties out by this time of year. The beach baskets have been brought in, the days have become short and the long months of winter grayness have set in -- so gray that it sometimes difficult to see where the sky stops and the sea begins.

And yet, the hotels on the island of Rügen and on the mainland coast nearby are full, and will be until the beginning of November. Fall in northern Germany is crane-spotting season. And every year, the northern German coast plays host to one of the largest gatherings of the birds in the world as they rest up for their long journey southward.

Up to 70,000 birds make a stopover in the area, home to both farmland and wetlands, every year. Cranes from Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics are the first to arrive, soon to be joined by their brethren that live in Scandinavia. After weeks of feeding on the harvested fields, the birds head off in enormous groups for southern Spain or for northern and central Africa.

Before they fly south, though, the cranes -- more precisely known as the Common Crane or Eurasian Crane -- draw tens of thousands of birdwatchers to northern Germany. There are so many tourists that measures have been taken to protect the shy birds from the curious crowds. Farmers dump corn feed on certain fields -- the feed is sponsored by the German airline Lufthansa, which uses a crane as its logo -- and birdwatchers are allowed to set up shop an appropriate distance away.

Hardcore crane enthusiasts can book blinds much closer to the birds. But, according to a recent feature in Stern magazine, there is a catch: observers in the blinds must remain as still as possible, cannot talk, have to arrive before sunrise and leave after sunset, have to bring in their food and must bring out their waste -- in a pail provided.

For those interested in getting a closer look at the cranes, next year might be the best bet. This fall, hotels in the region are likely to be booked out until the middle of next month.

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